In Chapter 20, page 288, of Manhattan Beach, Jennifer Egan writes, “…Dexter knew what action he must take.”
This provocative line comes on the heels of Anna and Dexter Styles single lovemaking episode, which “in forty-one years of his life, it had never been better than this,” and after Dexter tried to speak to his father-in-law about his desire to go straight (he is a high-level gangster in charge of numerous night clubs in New York City.) He is told that it would be nearly impossible after such a long time in “the business.” We also learn of Arthur Berringer’s stipulation that before he consented to let his daughter Harriet marry Styles, he had to agree to be faithful to her, a promise he had largely kept, except for this compelling encounter with Anna.
The action that Styles knew he must take was to return by ship to the place off the coast of Staten Island, where, years ago, Anna’s father, Eddie Kerrigan in chains (he was in Styles’ employment as an ombudsman) had been pushed overboard. Styles assumed Eddie had died and his remains would be found at the bottom of the sea. Anna, determined to find her father, was dressed in her deep-sea diving “dress” (she was the first female diver to repair ships that would help American win Word War II.) When she goes down to look for her father, all she finds is his gold watch.
This is because Eddie was something of Houdini and managed to free himself and swim to the surface and to the beach, where a kind-hearted fisherman dragged him home and warmed his body. Eddie took no changes after this—he joined a merchant ship and spent the next twenty years traveling the seas…
Manhattan Beach was something of a puzzle to me, a puzzle I was determined to solve. And solve it I did, except I have failed to understand just why Eddie was tossed overboard. (Maybe a more astute reader than I can tell me why.) Largely, reading this book satisfied me that way eating a good meal does—like when you are at a restaurant and you know you’ve ordered just the right thing.
I admire Jennifer Egan’s assured writing style and her command of her subject matter. The novel is set mostly in Brooklyn during WWII. Since I was a resident of Brooklyn off and on from 1982 to 2007, I was familiar with most of the places described in the book. It was fun imagining it during the war.
Some images that Ms. Egan conjured will stay with me forever, namely, that of Styles carrying Anna’s disabled sister Lydia, who, though severely disabled, has the countenance of an angel, down the stairs of their apartment building to his car and driving them to the beach, so that she can see and experience the ocean.
However, there were times when I felt passages not germane to the story were too detailed, and I just wanted to get through them and onto to more interesting material, like the process of dressing a diver and when Eddie’s ship was torpedoed off the coast of Madagascar, and he and his mates were lost at sea.
At heart Manhattan Beach is a love story between two unlikely people. Dexter Styles pays the price for wanting to break free—he is killed, but his life continues in the son Anna bears him.
I highly recommend Manhattan Beach to anyone who wants a good read.
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